innovation

Ideas are sometimes Slippery and Hard to Grasp

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I started this blog the goal of it being an “idea exchange,” as well a way to pass along lessons learned to help others. One of the things that has surprised me is how different the comments and likes are for each post. Feedback from the last post was even more diverse and surprising than usual. It ranged from comments about “Siri vs Google,” to feedback about Sci-Fi books and movies, to Artificial Intelligence.

I asked a few friends for feedback and received something very insightful (Thanks Jim). He stated that he found the blog interesting, but wasn’t sure what the objective was. He went on to identify several possible goals for the last post. Strangely enough, his comments mirrored the type of feedback that I received. That pointed out an area for improvement to me, and I appreciated that.

This also got me thinking about a white paper written 12-13 years ago by someone I used to work with. It was about how Bluetooth was going to be the “next big thing.” He had read an IEEE paper or something and saw potential for this new technology. His paper provided the example of your toaster and coffee maker communicating so that your breakfast would be ready when you walk into the kitchen in the morning.

At that time I had a couple of thoughts. First, who cared about something that only had a 20-30 foot range when WiFi was becoming popular and had much greater range? In addition, a couple of years earlier I had a tour of the Microsoft “House of the Future,” in which everything was automated and key components communicated with each other. But everything in the house was all hardwired or used WiFi – not Bluetooth. So, it was easy to dismiss his assertion because it seemed too abstract.

Looking back now I view that white paper as having insight (if it were visionary he would have come out with the first Bluetooth speakers, or car interface, or even phone earpiece and gotten rich), but it failed to present use cases that were easy Idea 2enough to understand yet different enough from what was available at the time to demonstrate the real value of the idea. His expression of idea was not tangible enough and therefore too slippery to be easily grasped.

I’m a huge believer that good ideas sometimes originate where you least expect them. Often those ideas are incremental in nature – seemingly simple and sometimes borderline obvious, but building on some other idea or concept. An idea does not need to be unique in order to be important or valuable, but it does need to be presented in a way that is easy to understand and tangible. That is just good communication.

One of the things I miss most from when my consulting company was active was the interaction between a couple of key people (Jason and Peter) and myself. Those guys were very good at taking an idea and helping build it out. This worked well because we had some common expertise and experiences, but we also had skills and perspectives that were more complementary in nature. That diversity increased the depth and breadth to our efforts to develop and extend those ideas.

Our discussions were creative and highly collaborative, and also a lot of fun. Each of us improved from them, and the outcome us usually something viable from a commercial perspective. As a growing and profitable small business you need to constantly innovate to differentiate yourself from your competition. Our discussions were driven as much by necessity as they were by intellectual curiosity.

So, back to the last post. I view various technologies as building blocks. Some are foundational and others are complementary. To me, the key is not viewing those various technologies as competing with each other. Instead, I look for the value in integrating them with each other. It is not always possible and does not always lead to something better, but occasionally it does. With regard to voice technology, I do believe that we will see more, better and smarter applications of it.

While today’s smart phones would not pass the Turing Test or proposed alternatives, they are an improvement over more simplistic voice translation tools available just a few years ago. Advancement requires the tool to understand context in order to make inferences. This brings you closer to machine learning, and big data (when done right) increases that potential. Ultimately, this all leads to Artificial Intelligence (at least in my mind). It’s a big leap from a simple voice translation tool to AI, but when viewed as building blocks it is not such a stretch.

Now think about creating an interface (API) that allows one smart device to communicate with another in something akin to the collaborative efforts described above with my old team. It’s not simply having a front-end device exchanging keywords or queries with a back-end device. Instead, it is two or more devices and/or systems having a “discussion” about what is being requested, looking at what each component “knows,” asking clarifying questions and making suggestions, and then finally taking that multi-dimensional understanding to determine what is really needed.

So, possibly not true AI, but a giant leap forward from what we have today. That would help turn science fiction of the past into science fact in the near future. The better the understanding and inferences by the smart system, the better the results. I also believe that the unintended consequences of these new smart systems it that are they become more human like in their approach the more likely they will be to make errors. But, hopefully they will be able to back test recommendations to help minimize errors and be intelligent enough to monitor results and make suggestions about corrective actions when they determine that the recommendation was not optimal. And even more importantly, there won’t be an ego creating a distortion filter on the results.

A lot of the building blocks required to create these new systems are available today. But, it takes both vision and insight to see that potential, translate ideas from slippery and abstract to tangible and purposeful, and then start building something really cool. As that happens we will see a paradigm shift in how we interact with computers and how they interact with us. That will lead us to the systematic integration that I wrote about in a big data / nanotechnology post.

So, what is the objective of this post? To get people thinking about things in a different way, to foster collaboration and partnerships between businesses and educational institutions to push the limits of technology, and to foster discussion about what others believe the future of computing and smart devices will look like. I’m confident that I will see these types of systems in my lifetime, and see the possibility of a lot of this occurring within the next decade.

What are your thoughts?

Failing Productively

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As an entrepreneur you will typically get advice like, “Fail fast and fail often.” I always found this somewhat amusing, similar to the saying, “It takes money to make money” (a lot of bad investments are made using that philosophy). Living this yourself is an amazing experience – especially when things turn out well. But as I have mentioned before, you learn as much from the good experiences as you do from the bad ones.

Innovating is tough. You need people who are always thinking of different and better ways of doing things, or question why something has to be done or made a certain way. It takes confidence to ask questions that many would view as stupid (“Why would you do that, it’s always been done this way.”) When you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can happen and it feels great.

Innovating also takes a willingness to lose time and money, with the hope of winning something big enough later to make it all worthwhile. This is where a lot of companies fall short because they lack the patience, budget, or appetite to fail. I believe that this is why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams, as with them the prospect of doing something really cool is motivation enough to give something a try.

It takes a lot of discipline to follow a plan when a project appears to be failing, but it takes even more discipline to kill a project that has demonstrated real potential but isn’t meeting expectations. That was one of my first, and most important, lessons learned in this area. Let me explain…

In 2000 we looked at franchising our “consulting system” – processes, procedures, tools, metrics, etc. that were proven in our business. We believed that this could help average consultants deliver above average work products. It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider they believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We found an attorney who after a 2-hour interview agreed to work with us (as he said, he “didn’t want to waste his time or our money on a fools errand.”)

We estimated it would take 12 months and cost $100,000 or less to fully develop. We met with potential prospects to validate the idea (it would have been illegal to pre-sell the system) and then got to work. Twelve months turned into 18, and the $100K budget increased almost 50%. But, all indications were positive and we felt very good about this effort.

Then, the terror attacks occurred on Sept. 11th and businesses everywhere saw a decline. In early 2002 we reevaluated the project and felt that it could be completed within the next 6-8 months, and would cost another $50K. After a long and emotional debate we decided to kill the project – not because we felt it would not work, but rather because there was less of a target market and now the payback period would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.

A big lesson learned was that our approach had to be more analytical. From that point forward we created a budget for “time off” (we bought our own time, as opposed to waiting for bench time) and for other project related items. We had a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. And, when an idea felt right we would create a plan with a defined budget, milestones, and timeline. If the project failed to meet any of the defined objectives it would be killed. We documented what we did, why we did what we did, and would have postmortem reviews to learn as much as possible from every effort.

We still had failures, but with each one we took less time and spent less money. More importantly, we learned how to do this better, and that helped us realize several successes. It provided both the structure and the freedom to create some amazing things. And, since failing was an acceptable outcome it was never feared.

This was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it worked for us.

Things that make you go hmmm

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Artist's conception of PSO J318.5-22
Artist’s conception of PSO J318.5-22. (Credit: MPIA/V. Ch. Quetz)

This week I read a story about Astronomers finding a new, free-floating planet (PSO J318.5-22). What I loved about this story is that the planet defies the definition of a planet, as it does not orbit a star. It’s something that shouldn’t exist, or at least something that exists outside the astronomical framework.

It’s funny how you grow-up being taught what is right and how things should work. While knowledge and understanding is good, it can also be limiting. When you just know that something should not work it is really easy to just accept that and move on. It can be a real innovation killer.

Every so often something new, different, and sometimes even seemingly inconsequential, comes around and makes a big difference. Think about Apple’s iTunes. It was created merely as a means to sell iPods.  Critics said it would never work. But, it changed the way people buy music and video content and is one of the fastest growing businesses within Apple.

Or, think about Twitter. An idea for a microblogging service to send text messages to a group of friends. Now news is reported via tweets and media of all types use hashtags to create communities and generate buzz. Something that should have been almost nothing has become so powerful and important to so many.

People that know me or have worked for me have heard this saying on many occasions:  “Don’t give me the 10 reasons why something won’t work; Instead, find the one or two ways that it might work and let’s go from there.” This simple statement sets a simple yet very important expectation.

Most people spend a lot of time and effort finding ways to prove that things will or should fail. I find that very frustrating. But, if you get the right people with the right mindset you can do some pretty amazing things. And, like Post It® notes, occasionally you create something really cool that was completely unexpected. But, you will never know if you don’t even get started.

So, actively look for examples of products or services that broke the rules. Try to understand the genesis of those ideas. And, the next time you think that something is impossible, remember PSO J318.5-22

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…